Reading legal documents

When you receive a legal document, it can be difficult to understand what it means. This might be​ because of:

  • the type of words used
  • the way the document is set out
  • the style of language used.

Hint iconFor a helpful tool to use when reading a legal document, see Checklist: Reading legal documents.

Alert IconRemember, you should never ignore a legal document that is sent to you. You should read it and keep in mind any deadlines to respond or take action.

When reading a legal document you should consider the following:


    Sometimes the simplest way to work out what a legal document is saying is to read the heading.

    If it is a letter, it may have a heading, before the bulk of the text, which explains:

    • what the names of the parties in dispute are
    • what the court case number is (if any)
    • what type of dispute or negotiation is taking place.

    If it is a court document, there may be a heading explaining what the document is, such as:

    • Statement of Claim
    • Application to the Local Court
    • Court Attendance Notice
    • Subpoena.

    If it is legislation (laws made by parliament), the name of the law and the year it became law will usually be at the top as a heading, such as:

    • Civil Procedure Act 2005
    • Criminal Procedure Act 1986
    • Uniform Civil Procedure Rules 2005
    • Local Court Rules 2009.

    Each part, division and section of a law will also have headings to describe what they contain.

    Reference numbers

    Many legal documents have a reference number that can help identify what the case is about and who is involved.

    • If it is a letter from a lawyer, the law firm will usually have a reference number that identifies which lawyer at the firm is running the case, and what the file number is.
    • If it is a court document, the court will give it a number when it is filed - this will usually include a case number and the year the case was started.
    • If it is legislation (laws made by a parliament), a law will have a number that indicates how many versions of the law there have been prior to the current one.
    • Some forms have reference numbers that identify the type of form being used, such as forms used by Roads and Maritime Services (formerly the RTA) and forms used by the police.

    What is the document saying or trying to do?

    The type of legal document sent to you will usually give you information about what the writer is trying to tell you. For example, a:

    • letter of demand tells you that the writer believes you owe them money
    • Statement of claim tells you that someone is starting a civil court case against you
    • letter of offer tells you that one party is offering to settle a dispute
    • Subpoena tells you that you either have to attend court, send documents to the court, or both
    • Court Attendance Notice tells you that you have been charged with a criminal offence and have to go to court.

    Understanding what the document is trying to tell you can help you work out how to respond.

    Any legal letter or court document you receive will also tell you something in particular. For example:

    • a letter might refer to a previous letter or incident and then explain what the writer's view is and what they want from you
    • a Statement of Claim will explain who the parties are, the amount the plaintiff says they are owed and why
    • a Subpoena will tell a witness who the parties are in a case and what the witness needs to do and when.

    Legislation can provide information about a number of things, including:

    • what the law is
    • what penalties apply to people that break certain laws
    • what powers government bodies have
    • how court cases are run.

    Forms will usually provide spaces for you to fill in your details, but may also tell you:

    • how to submit or file the form
    • where to send it to
    • any fees for submitting it
    • contact details for the department you have to submit it with.

    A good way to work out what a document is saying, is to separate it into sections, or summarise it in point form. You could:

    • break up the issues
    • make a list of the relevant laws
    • note any time limits for taking action or responding
    • separate those points you agree with, and those you disagree with.

    Legal words and phrases and Latin

    Lawyers sometimes use legal words, phrases and language that are not easy to understand. They may also use Latin words and phrases.

    Some examples of legal words include:

    Legal words Meaning
    Wherein during which
    Herein in or inside here
    Therein in there
    Shall must
    Hereinafter in a following part of this document, statement, or book
    Forthwith at once, immediately

    Some examples of legal phrases include:

    Legal phrases Meaning
    Admissibility of evidence The test of whether evidence will be used in a court case or not
    Breach of contract Where one person fails to meet the obligations set out in a contract
    Cause of action A reason someone can sue someone else
    Deed of release and settlement A written agreement that settles a dispute between parties and releases those parties from any further obligations, sometimes simply referred to as 'Deed of release'
    Grant of probate A court order allowing the executors of a will to deal with the estate of a deceased.
    Joint and several liability Two or more people responsible for paying a debt in full, both individually and together.
    Real property Property such as land and buildings, as well as any rights to the land

    Some examples of Latin words and phrases used include:

    Latin Meaning​
    inter alia among other things
    bona fide authentic, genuine
    pro bono for the public good, often used to refer to free legal assistance
    mutatis mutandis the necessary changes having been made
    res ipsa loquitur the thing speaks for itself. This is often used when simply describing what happened is enough to prove a point (for example in a car accident case noting that the other driver was driving on the wrong side of the road).
    ipso facto a certain effect is a direct consequence of an action
    habeas corpus may you have [your] body, often used when someone is unlawfully held in custody
    non est factum it is not [my] deed/document
    prima facie used to signify that on first examination, a matter appears to be self-evident from the facts
    ultra vires beyond what someone is authorised to do

    These are just a small example of the many legal and Latin words and phrases that are often used. If you do not understand a word used in a legal document, you should use a dictionary (see below) or get legal advice.

    Using a dictionary

    If you don't understand a word used in a legal document you should look it up in a dictionary. Some legal words might not appear in an ordinary dictionary, but there are legal dictionaries that give meanings for common legal words and terms. Most legal dictionaries will also include Latin words and commonly used phrases.

    Representing Yourself has a dictionary for common words found on this website, including some legal and Latin words. For more information, see Legal Dictionary.

    You can also access dictionaries and legal dictionaries in your local library. Go to the LIAC website for more information.


    The following links provide examples of legal documents with explanations of how to read them: